Is “Welcome to the Future” the first song out of the Nashville machine to express awe at the election of the first African-American president? It’s the first to make an impression, and without even mentioning Obama or the election. The second single on American Saturday Night, it takes a subtler backdoor route to evoking the historic moment, in the process increasing the chance that the song itself will move you or give you chills the first time you listen. This is smart songwriting. At first it seems like just another bit of Brad Paisley cleverness, the first verse expressing surprise that a trip to the video arcade in the ‘70s has morphed into pulling a cell phone from your pocket to play games today. When after that verse he sings, “Hey hey / glory glory hallelujah / welcome to the future”, it comes off as either ironic or overstated. When those same gospel-tinged words return after the third verse, they carry a different meaning.
Over the course of the song, Paisley shifts the past/future comparisons towards the serious. “So many things I never thought I’d see / happening right in front of me”, he sings, leading into a story about a high-school classmate who had a burning cross placed in his yard. And then come the evocative lines, “I thought about him today / everybody who’s seen what he’s seen / from a woman on a bus / to a man with a dream.” Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the usual civil-rights suspects for a song to reference, but the way he and his co-writers bring them up, and casually fill “today” and “the future” with so much emotional meaning, is impressive. It helps that the melody itself is optimistic, that even the synthesizer, all too typically used as a stand-in for “the future”, is integrated in a way that feels natural, not like a gimmick.
That hopeful “Welcome to the Future” melody returns at the middle and end of the album, marking this as a concept album about hope, about the past, present, and future and the paths between them. It’s a recording about America’s past/present/future. Besides “Welcome to the Future” there’s the title track, a celebration of the US as a melting pot. Mostly a fun romp, observing young Americans French kissing and enjoying Italian ice under Spanish moss, it too possesses awe at progress: “My great great great granddaddy / stepped off of that ship / I bet he never ever dreamed we’d have all this.”
The album overall is mostly about people’s personal journeys over time, about movement from childhood to adulthood, singlehood to coupledom. “Water” links coming-of-age stories through the titular element. It’s a playful song about imagination and anticipation which fast-forwards from a kid’s swimming pool to a spring break road trip to adults skinny-dipping. Two broken-hearted ballads (“Everybody’s Here”, “Oh Yeah, You’re Gone”) balance with can’t-believe-I-finally-found-love songs (“Then”, “I Hope That’s Me”) to tell a continuing story of lost and found love.
The mid-album “Welcome to the Future (Reprise)” strips the original song of decoration, cuts it down to a minute and a half, and turns it into a personal story about the path from lonely singlehood to being married with kids. American Saturday Night is filled with songs about domestic life, about how we get from place to place, about how we find ourselves married with kids and look back with awe. The surprised tone of the reprise echoes the original song’s notion that the future can’t be planned: “wherever we were going / well, we’re here.” For countries or people, the future is something we stumble into.
The album, Paisley’s eighth, also represents a new direction with his music, or at least the tone of his albums, which have always had a variety-show air. That was boosted by his habit of throwing in jokey, old-fashioned skits and instrumentals that showed off his guitar chops. This time there’s none of that. The humor is worked into the songs. His guitar skills are on display across nearly every piece, folded into the songs themselves. It turns out that 2008’s guitar-focused Play wasn’t him getting his guitar jones out of his system. It was him getting ready to better integrate his guitar solos into his songs. And he has.
These songs are ordered carefully; thematically they echo each other. And Paisley’s own persona on the album fits the seemingly more personal slant of the songs. This is a less sarcastic, less cynical, more “heartfelt” Paisley. In a way, the album fits more comfortably into the currently dominant “sensitive guy” male country template, where tough cowboys sing soft-pop ballads about getting in touch with their feelings. But Paisley is more convincing in this mode than most, partly because his usual smart-ass persona makes the heartfelt turns seem like true confessions, and partly because the songs themselves take turns away from the expected, even when he’s dealing with old-hat subject matter.
American Saturday Night contains the requisite God song (“No”), but it’s about how God isn’t going to give you everything you want. It’s a faith-based tear-jerker, yes, but one with more candor, less empty certainty. There are songs about male-female relationships, but Paisley uses them to poke holes in men’s inflated sense of self. “The Pants” takes down men who think they’re by nature the head of the household. The country-soul ballad “She’s Her Own Woman” nears pandering with its knee-bent tribute to female independence, but it also paints a humorous portrait of a man lost in a domestic setting, unable to figure out how anything works. Even the play-fast, have-a-good-time songs, which could easily be considered throwaways, have wit about them. “Catch All the Fish” is a drink-along, sing-along anthem, but it gets funny at the end, when the men have caught all the fish, drunk all the beer, run out of gas in their cars, and now sit in the middle of nowhere, hopeless.
The love ballads and breakup songs are all more detailed than they need to be. Partly from the writing, partly from the singing, “Everybody’s Here” is vivid in its image of a heartbroken protagonist trying, and failing, to disappear into the fabric of a party. If only people would stop asking him where she is tonight. “Then”, the album’s first single, seems on the first few listens like a flimsy love song, all too typical, or even like a rewriting of 5th Gear’s “It Did”, where the relationship keeps getting better, even when they think it can’t. But the song has a serious level of atmosphere, depth in the sound and the singing. Suitably, its most emotional moment is a contemplation of the future, at the song’s crescendo. “I can just see you / with a baby on the way / I can just see you / when your hair’s turning gray / what I can’t see / is how I’m ever going to love you more / but I’ve said that before,” he sings, his voice rising delicately on the last words.
Whether American Saturday Night will lead to an extended new direction or not, it’s one more signifier that Paisley’s future is bright. It’s the best album yet from one of country music’s biggest hit-makers. Its success comes not just from the album’s unity of theme, the way it weds national progress to personal progress, nor just from how well Paisley blends country tradition—barn-burning fiddle-and-guitar hoe-downs—into fresh, immediate pop songwriting. The level of songwriting and performance here is extremely high, an achievement for a singer whose other albums all have their valleys and peaks. Above all, American Saturday Night has the capacity to surprise, a rare quality in country or any genre.